September 28, 2018

Book Review: Elizabeth and Mary by Jane Dunn

Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens

by Jane Dunn

Genres: Biography, British History, Tudor Period, Nonfiction
Publisher: Vintage
Length: 480 pages
Published: January 25, 2005
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble
Note: I listened to the audiobook of Elizabeth and Mary during a season where I could not get enough Tudor history. If you have more Tudor nonfiction recommendations, send them my way!

Official Book Summary:

"The political and religious conflicts between Queen Elizabeth I and the doomed Mary, Queen of Scots, have for centuries captured our imagination and inspired memorable dramas played out on stage, screen, and in opera. But few books have brought to life more vividly than Jane Dunn's Elizabeth and Mary the exquisite texture of two women's rivalry, spurred on by the ambitions and machinations of the forceful men who surrounded them. The drama has terrific resonance even now as women continue to struggle in their bid for executive power.

Against the backdrop of sixteenth-century England, Scotland, and France, Dunn paints portraits of a pair of protagonists whose formidable strengths were placed in relentless opposition. Protestant Elizabeth, the bastard daughter of Anne Boleyn, whose legitimacy had to be vouchsafed by legal means, glowed with executive ability and a visionary energy as bright as her red hair. Mary, the Catholic successor whom England's rivals wished to see on the throne, was charming, feminine, and deeply persuasive. That two such women, queens in their own right, should have been contemporaries and neighbours sets in motion a joint biography of rare spark and page-turning power."

Excerpt (from the Preface):

"Four hundred years ago, on 24 March 1603, Elizabeth I died. She was in her seventieth year. Having been propped for days on cushions on the floor in her chamber, she had been persuaded to take her bed at last. To her Archbishop of Canterbury, silencing his praise, she said, 'My lord, the crown which I have born so long has given enough of vanity in my time.' These words struck to the heart of the tragedy that had befallen Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots. This same crown had been the focus of Mary's ambition too; her claim to Elizabeth's throne was the obsession of her adult life from which so many disasters flowed.

Elizabeth realized that her crown and all the powerful interests that surrounded it were what drew her and Mary together, and yet fatally divided them. Despite possessing the throne of England, with all the pride of a daughter of King Henry, she was haunted by a deep-rooted insecurity as to her own legitimacy. When Mary pressed by Parliament to sign Mary's death warrant. Elizabeth railed in anguish against the crown that had made this unnatural decision hers alone. Instead she wished that Mary and she 'were but us two milkmaids with pails upon our arms,' and she regretted, 'that there were no more dependency upon us but mine on life were only in danger and not the whole estate of [her people's] religion and well doings.' It was their royal rather than their human status that had brought these queens to such straits that one had to die.

Sixteen years before Elizabeth's own natural death in old age, Mary was beheaded at the age of forty-four. From that one act of regicide, a queen killing a fellow queen, a mythology of justification, romance, accusation and blame has been spun that retains its force to the present day. Of all the monarchs of these islands it is Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots who most stir the imagination. They divided powerful opinion in their lifetimes and were the focus of passionate debate in the centuries the followed their deaths. Murderess, 'whore,' daughter of the devil were epithets flung at both queens by their detractors, while their supporters claimed Elizabeth as hero and saviour, Mary as martyr and saint. It was the relationship between them that heightened these extremes of partisan feeling. Even in death, through history and myth, they continued locked together and complex rivalry, somehow embodying the ancestral character and mutual suspicion of their respective kingdoms."

My Book Review:

I read this book to help fill in some of the questions I had after reading G. J. Meyer's The Tudors: The Complete Story of England's Most Notorious Dynasty. Elizabeth and Mary were two killer queens who never met in person, were cousins, kept in frequent contact via letters, and yet whose fate (and death) depended upon each other. As historical figures, they do not get much more fascinating.

This book definitely provided a detailed biography about each of these women. I still have so many questions, but now my understanding and questions help me see them as subjective, complicated, real women and not the flat prototypes they are often cast as within history books.

Elizabeth's life and choices not to marry nor to have children make more sense as you learn about her relationship with her mother (the doomed Anne Bolelyn), her stepmothers (King Henry VIII's later, successive wives), her infamous father, her stepfather, her court favorite (Dudley), her cousins, and most importantly, her relationship with the British crown itself. It is not difficult to see why she cherished her independence and valued her claim to power after witnessing her father's reign and flippant attitudes towards women and marriage. That she was responsible for more deaths than those ordered by her cousin, "Bloody" Mary, was surprising but fit within the upper hand she maintained as she wielded power over both her country and her rival, Mary Queen of Scots.

It is fascinating to consider that these two women never met but kept in contact, that Mary repeatedly sought to further establish their relationship (if for her own reasons), and that Elizabeth ultimately felt it was right to go forward with the orders to execute her Mary. The book excels at enriching audience's understanding of Mary: though she is painted as a saint and martyr, she certainly had her own degree of problems including marrying the man who murdered her second husband, a choice that would ultimately lead to her eventual downfall.

The book was greatly informative and I highly recommend it alongside Meyer's look at the Tudor monarchy as a whole.

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